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Akhila Vijayaraghavan headshot

New Report: Poor Working Conditions Among Food Workers

A new report released by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, looks at the wages and working conditions of workers across the entire food chain, for the first time. The sector employs about 20 million people in the US and it comprises about one-sixth of the nation's workforce.

The report entitled 'The Hands that Feed Us is based on almost 700 surveys and interviews with workers and employers in food production, processing, distribution, retail and service, which collectively sell over $1.8 trillion dollars in goods and services annually, accounting for over 13 percent of the nation's Gross Domestic Product. 

According to the report, a vast majority of the workers earn incredibly low wages and they have little or no access to paid sick days and health benefits. Although there are some good jobs in the food system, eighty-six percent of the work force live in poverty and face high levels of food insecurity.

 "Most people don't think about the millions of food system workers who make it possible for us to shop in grocery stores or eat in restaurants," says Joann Lo, Executive Director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance. "This report is intended to make these people visible, and serve as a wake-up call for policy makers, employers and consumers to make the entire system more just."

The report breaks down the five core occupations and industries in the food system: farmworkers (production), slaughterhouse and other processing facilities workers (processing), warehouse workers (distribution), grocery store workers (retail), and restaurant and food service workers (service). It examines in detail how corporations have an impact on the entire supply chain. Employers interviewed unanimously commented on how multinational food corporations receive government subsidies and tax breaks and use this leverage to vertically integrate, creating unfair and unmanageable competition.

The main concerns of the report include:

  • Lack of Benefits: Seventy-nine percent of food system workers do not have a single paid sick day, or do not know if they have paid sick days, and 58 percent lack health coverage.

  • Reliance on Public Support: Nearly 28% of food system employees are on Medicaid, compared to 19.36% of all industries. Due to a lack of employer-provided health benefits, more than 80 percent of these workers are unable to afford to primary healthcare.

  • Poor Quality of Life: A full 10 percent reported working more than 10 hours per day, and the vast majority of those reported working 60 or more hours per week.

  • Lack of Upward Mobility: Despite taking on more duties, 81 percent never received a promotion.

  • Improper Safety Training: More than half of all workers surveyed (52 percent) reported that they did not receive health and safety training from their employers.

  • Gender and Race Discrimination: While about one quarter of Black and Latino workers and almost 40 percent of Asian workers reported earning less than the minimum wage, only 13.5 percent of white workers surveyed reported earning less than the minimum wage. Women food system workers take home slightly less than men in the food system; women earn median weekly wages of $400, while men reported a median weekly take-home of $421.

While this report many not be a total shock, it's comprehensive black-and-white review of the entire food supply chain is unprecedented and eye-opening. The people that provide us with one of the main requirements for life deserve better.

Image Credit: Geo Swan, Wikimedia Commons 

Akhila Vijayaraghavan headshot

Akhila is the Founding Director of GreenDen Consultancy which is dedicated to offering business analysis, reporting and marketing solutions powered by sustainability and social responsibility. Based in the US, Europe, and India, the GreenDen's consultants share the best practices and innovation from around the globe to achieve real results. She has previously written about CSR and ethical consumption for Justmeans and hopes to put a fresh spin on things for this column. As an IEMA certified CSR practitioner, she hopes to highlight a new way of doing business. She believes that consumers have the immense power to change 'business as usual' through their choices. She is a Graduate in Molecular Biology from the University of Glasgow, UK and in Environmental Management and Law. In her free-time she is a voracious reader and enjoys photography, yoga, travelling and the great outdoors. She can be contacted via Twitter @aksvi and also http://www.thegreenden.net

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